Recipes Articles Book Reviews Shopping Forum Contact

Hungary: A Cuisine centuries in the making

by Helena Zukowski

When the great chefs of Europe sit around kicking the can and discussing the continent's best food, the kitchens of Hungary rarely spring immediately to the lips. It's not that Hungarian gourmet cuisine falls short of the mark; it's really more a case of poor public relations. Say Hungarian (or Magyar) cooking and people conjure up plates of fatty goose liver and great pots of goulash liberally seasoned with paprika, and all eaten in robust amounts to the accompaniment of gypsy violins.

While there's a smidgeon of truth in the image (goulash after all is deliciously everywhere) the true story behind Hungarian cuisine is as complex as the baffling Hungarian language itself and as rich as the broth of a Majgaluskaleves. Because of its position at the crossroads of ancient caravan, campaign and migratory routes, Hungary has had a turbulent history laced with hordes of invaders and occupiers. While the local peasants were not exactly overjoyed having one barbarian horde after another thunder through their pastures, it did have a profound effect on the country's cuisine.

Like Rome, there are things that take more than a day to build, and the shape of a country's national food is certainly one of them. Like a slow-cooked stew, a cuisine requires time to blend its multitude of contributing flavors. As each "transient" invader settled into this land between the Alps and the Carpathians, another flavor was thrown into the pot, so that over the centuries Hungary extracted and shaped this legion of influences into something truly different, becoming one of Europe's most identifiable cuisines. You might call Hungarian cooks the first of the great "fusion" experts.

The basic elements of the Hungarian kitchen were already there when the seven Magyar tribes under Prince Arpád conquered the land in 896AD. These fiery nomads were constantly on the move, so a large cast-iron bogrács (kettle) hung behind a horseman's saddle even on marauding expeditions. The pot would be hung over a campfire and whatever meat was available would be thrown in along with an onion or two for the evening's goulash (gulyás). Whatever was left over would be dried and put into a bag made out of a sheep's stomach to be eaten later-an early form of the "doggy bag."

This slowly simmering gulyás continued over the centuries and remains (along with põrkõlt, paprikás and tokány) one of the "four pillars," or four traditional stews found in Hungarian cooking. Non-Hungarians often ask, "Is goulash a soup or a stew?" Well, the answer is both. If more vegetables and water are added, then it's a soup; less water and more meat and it's a stew. There are actually almost as many recipes for gulyás as there are cooks, but the basic ingredients remain much the same. Certain cardinal rules for gulyás apply: don't use flour, wine, brown sauce or any spice but caraway. Never use any garniture beside diced potatoes or galuska (dumplings). You can however vary the recipe by adding fresh tomatoes or puree, garlic, green peppers or hot cherry peppers.

Põrkõlt, the second most traditional dish, is (surprise!) not made of pork and this is a good place to pause for a minute to discuss the perplexing Hungarian language. With its roots in the Carpathian mountains and maybe Sanskrit, it is absolutely divorced from any of the Slavic, Germanic or Romantic languages. (It is remotely related to Finnish but in the dark distant past). When you are in Hungary absolutely nothing written is recognizable, and on my first trip there my son, daughter-in-law and I played mental darts whenever we were handed a menu (always only in Hungarian). Just for starters, there was the problem of identifying a place to eat. In almost every other country, the word for "restaurant" is some recognizable variation of that word; in Hungarian, it's étterem. Choosing from a menu was always a leap of faith, at least until we came to the town of Eger where, much to our great joy, we were handed a menu translated into English. Among the selections were such puzzling items as Hoof of Peasant, Tenderloin of Hungarian, and Cow Dance on the Dobo Square (the latter we assumed was beef). For dessert, we were enigmatically offered Pleasures of the Womans of Eger and Secret of the Minorits.

Hungarian lady

But back to the "second pillar" of Hungarian stews, põrkõlt. This is a stew that uses large, diced pieces of meat and can be made of beef, mutton, chicken, goose, veal, carp or game. Paprika and lots of onions are essential along with bacon, garlic, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions, the quantities depending on what type of meat is chosen. The liquid in the stew is usually reduced as much as possible.

Paprikás, the third pillar, is similar to põrkõlt but is usually finished with sweet or sour cream, sometimes mixed with a little flour and stirred in just before serving. Paprikás is often served with dumplings and is usually veal or chicken.

The tokány is a ragout using long strips of beef, lamb, veal, chicken or game prepared in the Mongolian waterless braising technique. Marjoram and summer savoury are common flavorings and wine, beer and sour cream are often added. One tokány (savanyú vetrece) dates back to the 15th century and the rule of great King Matthias. This beef tokány is cooked with smoked bacon, garlic, black pepper, bay leaves, mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar and grated lemon rind. Back in the King's time, mace, ginger and saffron were also added.

It was actually in King Matthias time, during the Italian Renaissance, that a long series of gustatory infusions began. Queen Beatrix, the Italian wife of King Matthias the first, introduced the onion, pasta, a wealth of new cheeses, citrus fruits and ice cream to traditional Hungarian fare.

During their 150-year rule after invading Hungary, the Turks brought rice, coffee, tomatoes, cherries and most important of all, paprika.

Hungarian cuisine reached its zenith however during the opulent Austro-Hungarian Empire in the latter part of the 19th century. Chefs at this time were sent to France to study and one of the greatest, Jozsef Marchal, trained in the kitchens of Napoleon III.

Like most occupiers, the Austrian Habsburgs looked upon Hungary as a colony to be used to supply raw ingredients (in this case agricultural products). The effect of this was to turn Hungary into "the bread basket of Central Europe," a land where the finest in fruits, vegetables and vineyards could be found.

The two decades before the outbreak of World War I has always been looked back on fondly as Hungary's "golden age for eating." Following the example set earlier by French chefs, Hungarians returned to their peasant roots and found inspiration in traditional dishes.

During this period paprika also became the defining feature of Hungarian cooking. A saying went: "A real Magyar can handle his strong paprika well." Sour cream also took its place as a main feature in Hungarian cuisine along with pastas, dumplings and soups.

Next to stews, nothing is more popular (or tastier) than one of the infinite variety of hot and cold Magyar soups. The Hungarians seem to be endlessly inventive with their soups and you can find a bowl for any occasion-soups that are meals in themselves, soups that excite the palate or soups that soothe. On my last trip to Hungary, I passed a long sunny afternoon sitting in an outdoor restaurant in Holloko (the small UNESCO World Heritage List town, 20 km northwest of Budapest) ladling up one bowl after another of Paloc, thick with lamb and fresh green beans and spiced with garlic, bay leaves, onions, caraway seeds, parsley and heaps of paprika. It was heavenly. There is a multitude of fish, chicken, lentil, mushroom and game soups, and the Hungarians were also serving cold soups long before they became fashionable in the West. Sour cherry, gooseberry and peach in champagne are three of a long list of delicious cold soups.

Hungarian peppers

Regional cooking is strongly defined in Hungary and one of the most distinctive areas is the Hortobagy in the Hungarian Puszta, or plain. This is the most romantic part of the Great Plain and a place where horses, riders and freedom are inseparable notions. Here great thundering herds of horses gallop across the sun-bleached plain guided by Hungarian "cowboys" in their distinctive flowing electric blue trousers and shirts. Visitors come here for many reasons-to watch skilled horsemanship in local "rodeos," to take a riding holiday, learn to ride and jump, or sample the country's best brandy. Because the Hortobagy gets more sunshine than the rest of the country, fruit trees bear a heavy and exceptionally sweet crop that has been the heart of the brandy distillation that has been passed down from father to son for centuries.

One of the most famous dishes from this area, Hortobagy Pancakes can be found on the menus of most of Budapest's great dining rooms. Whether they're called crêpes in France, palatschinken in Austria, nalésniky in Poland or blini in Russia, Europeans are mad for "pancakes" and each country claims to be the originator. Food historians say the pancake actually came from Romania and was spread through Europe by the Romans. In Hungary, the pancake became a subtle and complex art during the 17th and 18th centuries and today they can be found filled with everything from meats to apples and ground walnuts.

Budapest's most famous pancakes are served in Gundel, the city's best-known restaurant. Here the pancakes or palacsinta are filled with ground walnuts, chopped raisins, rum, cream and grated orange rind and topped with a rich chocolate-rum sauce.

The most benign of Hungary's invaders - the monastic orders - also had an impact on the cuisine. The monks introduced a host of new vegetables, herbs and fruits that they grew in their monastery gardens. Most of all, the monks took the tradition of growing grapes for wine, introduced by the Romans, and cemented it as a Magyar tradition. Until the Communist occupation last century (a period during which everything including wine reached the lowest common denominator) Hungary produced some of Europe's finest wines. Catherine the Great of Russia was so enamored of Hungarian Tokay wines that she sent special couriers just to transport the nectar, and Louis XIV (the Sun King) claimed Tokay was "the king of wines and the wine of kings." Since 1989, wine makers have slowly been rebuilding vineyards and once again are producing expensive Tokays (Tokaj) and full-bodied reds in the Valley of the Beautiful Women.

While grapes for wine are grown all over the country, the two best known areas are near Eger, the town where we were trying to decide on whether to risk ordering a Hoof of Peasant or stick to the cheese and bread. Eger is a gem, a small pastel-colored beauty chockablock full of baroque buildings, Turkish minorets, thermal baths and a grand medieval castle on a hill. The city has 175 historic monuments (only surpassed by Sopron and Budapest) and lies in a fertile valley surrounded by vineyards.

One of the most romantic sounding is The Valley of the Beautiful Women where visitors can sit at wooden tables sampling wine from barrels in the 100 or more wine cellars tucked into a hill. The most famous wine from this area (not necessarily the best) is Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood), Eger's full-bodied red. There are several stories relating how the wine won its strange name but the most common tells how the women of Eger plied their men with huge tankards of Bikaver before their battles with the Turks until their full beards turned red with the spilled wine. When the Turks saw the Hungarian's bloody beards, they figured it was wiser to retreat than to tangle with men who quaffed bull's blood to fortify themselves. In the Valley's wine cellars, you can also sample sweet wines such as Medoc Noir, Muskotaly and Leanyka. In our relentless search to discover who "the beautiful women" were, my son, daughter-in-law and I once idled away a tipsy afternoon in a wine cellar that dripped atmosphere, where we left a coin tucked into the mildewed walls to ensure (according to legend) that we would come back one day.

On my most recent visit to Hungary last fall, I was lucky enough to hit late harvest time in the Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region-and one of the best years in some time for botrytis cinerea (noble rot). The winemaker we visited was ecstatic, predicting that because of the long, hot summer and perfect conditions 1999 will go down as one of the great years for Tokaji Aszú, probably the world's most famous dessert wine. The pickers (usually women because it requires a delicate hand) were still in the vineyards laboriously separating the darkened, semi-dried grapes affected by the botrytis fungus, grape by grape, from the other sweet grapes. The affected grapes are collected in baskets called puttonyos which are then added to non-botrytised wine; labels of Aszú will indicate how many puttonyos were added; the more puttonyos, the sweeter and more expensive the Aszú.

Of all the many delicacies for which Hungary is famous, sweets (a legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) are probably best known. Every fine restaurant has a separate menu of cakes, tortes and slices, and going to a pâtisserie such as Gerbaud's in Budapest for coffee and cake is a national tradition. Many of these delicacies have been named after famous Hungarians such as Dobos Cake (after Jozsef Dobos, a 19th century chef) or Kossuth Crescent (after the greatest Hungarian politician, Lajos Kossuth.) Eszterhazy Cake (recipe page 18) was christened to honor Pal Eszterhazy, a scion of one of Hungary's most noble families, and a foreign minister under Emperor Franz Josef. Eszterhazy was a true connoisseur and the light delicacy named after him perhaps symbolizes his finesse in dealing with complex diplomatic issues. There are several recipes for this cloud-light layered cake with its delicate nutty taste and seductive cream filling, but the following was developed by Ms. Antalne Hradszky, head pastry chef at the Budapest InterContinental hotel.

Hungarian Recipes

Eszterhazy Cake
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare an angel food pan by lining with parchment paper on bottom and sides.
8 egg whites
1 1/4 c berry sugar (castor sugar)
1 1/4 c grated walnuts
1/4 c cake flour

Beat egg whites to soft/firm peak stage. Fold in sugar and flour (that have been sifted together several times) plus walnuts. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until golden brown. Test the cake with a skewer; if it comes out clean the cake is done. Turn the pan upside down to cool the cake. When it is totally cool, gently ease out of the pan and slice into six equal layers.

1 c heavy cream
1 c sugar (can be adjusted to taste)
4 egg yolks
4 T vanilla pudding powder
1 c plus 2 tablespoons butter

In mixer bowl, add yolks, sugar and vanilla pudding powder and beat together until it is fluffy and smooth. Spread mixture on each layer; stack one on top of the other. Cover cake and sides with the filling. Top with grated walnuts and garnish with walnut halves.

Hortobagy Pancakes (Hortobágyi Húsos Palacsinta)
14 oz veal or lean pork
1 large onion
1 green pepper
1 tomato
2 oz smoked bacon
1 t. paprika (not too spicy)
1 pint sour cream (or fresh cream)
1 T. flour

Dice the smoked bacon and fry it until the fat becomes transparent. Add finely chopped onions and braise covered until tender. Remove from stove, sprinkle with paprika and add meat cut in medium-size cubes. Fry for a few minutes over high heat, stirring continuously, then reduce the heat. Add the green pepper, tomato and salt to taste and continue simmering covered until tender. Remove the meat from the sauce, cut into small pieces. Mix sour cream and flour together, add to the sauce and bring to a boil. Add enough sauce to the meat to make a mixture that spreads easily. Fill pancakes, folk them over tucking in the ends and place in ovenproof dish. Pour the remainder of the sauce over the top and place in 350 degree oven. When hot, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately with an additional dish of sour cream.

7 oz flour
2 eggs
1/3 pint milk
1/3 pint approx. of soda water or similar carbonated drink
2 T. oil

Mix eggs, flour and milk together to make a smooth, salty pancake batter. Leave to rest for one to two hours. Heat an 8-inch or crepe pan slowly and add oil. Just before ladling in the batter add the soda water. Gently tip and twist the pan so the batter covers the entire pan. When the top bubbles, turn the pancake over and cook for 4 or 5 seconds longer. Make two thin pancakes per person.

Chicken Paprikash with Dumplings (Paprikás csirke galuskával)
1 chicken, approximately 3 pounds
1/4 c flour
1 T. oil
1 large onion (1 cup chopped)
5 t. paprika
1/4 t. pepper
1 green pepper cut in rings
1 tomato chopped
1 T tomato paste
2 c sour cream
2 T. heavy cream
1 c chicken broth

Wash chicken and cut into pieces. In a large plastic bag combine flour, 2 t. paprika, 1/4 t. salt, and pepper. Add chicken and shake to coat well. In a large skillet heat oil over medium heat and add the chicken. Sear until golden brown, turning once. Remove from pan and keep warm. Add onions, remaining paprika and salt to skillet and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in chicken broth and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add chicken pieces, green pepper and tomato, cover the pan and braise over low heat until tender. If liquid evaporates add a little water but it is best if the chicken cooks in its own juices. Remove chicken and green pepper and boil to reduce the liquid. In a small bowl, combine sour cream and 1/2 cup of hot pan juices; stir into skillet. Simmer until thickened, add heavy cream just before serving and pour over chicken.

1 lb flour
2 eggs
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c milk
4 oz butter

Break eggs into the flour, add salt and gradually add enough milk to make a soft dough that doesn't drop easily from the spoon. Cut small dumplings from the dough into the boiling salted water. As the dumplings rise to the surface, remove them with a slotted spoon, rinse with boiling water and toss with melted butter.

Goulash Soup (Magyaros gulyasleves)
1 T oil
1 medium onion (chopped)
1 t. sweet paprika
14 oz beef or pork
1 t. chopped garlic
1/4 t. cumin
1 green pepper (cut in rings)
1 tomato (peeled, seeded and cut in strips)
7 oz carrots and parsnips
11 oz potatoes
caraway seeds

Cut the meat into 1 inch cubes and wash thoroughly. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and fry chopped onion until softened. Remove from heat and sprinkle the paprika over the onion. Add a little water and return to simmer until mixture is reduced. Add meat and braise over moderate heat stirring constantly. Add green pepper, tomato and salt to taste. Cover the pan and braise over moderate heat until tender. Add cumin and crushed garlic. Meanwhile, peel potatoes, parsnips and carrots and dice. Add to the meat and pour in about 4 cups of cold water. Season with a pinch of caraway seeds and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Serve hot with a garnish of green pepper rings.

Copyright © 2008 Epicurean.com
All rights reserved